“You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and...blow.” In two lines, a star had arrived in Lauren Bacall, who was all of 19 years old when she insinuated them to co-star Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944). On screen, and off, he was smitten. And so were audiences, who quickly attuned to one of the most inimitable voices, and presences, in movies.
Betty Joan Perske, born in New York on Sept. 16, 1924, was to some extent lucky. She was a theater usher, sometime model, and aspiring actress when Hawks’s wife came across her photo in Vogue. When Hawks’s secretary, asked to find out more about her, mistakenly invited Bacall (who had taken her mother’s surname after her parents divorced) to Hollywood for a screen test, the director decided she was the fresh face he was seeking for his film. A loose adaptation of Ernest Hemingway became even freer as Hawks, who transformed “Betty” into “Lauren,” capitalized on the chemistry between her and Humphrey Bogart—an unlikely but somehow perfect pair despite a 25-year difference in age.
Once divorced from his third wife, Bogart wed Bacall in 1945. They had two children, Stephen and Leslie, and reteamed for three other movies, Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1945), Dark Passage (1947), and John Huston’s Key Largo (1948). The union ended with Bogart’s death from esophageal cancer in 1957. “He changed me, he gave me everything,” Bacall told TV interviewer Larry King. “And he was an extraordinary man.”
Cinematic success outside “Bogie and Bacall” was harder won—contracted to Warner Bros., she chafed at the roles offered to her. (A good one came in 1950’s Young Man with a Horn, as the grasping wife of jazzman Kirk Douglas, a friend from acting school.) “Stardom isn’t a profession; it’s an accident,” she commented, and film by film she built a career in a succession of brisk, tart-tongued, no-nonsense parts, often leavened with a knowing humor and sultriness. How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), with Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable, was a hit, as were Blood Alley (1955) with John Wayne, Written on the Wind (1956) with Rock Hudson, and Designing Woman (1957), co-starring Gregory Peck.
Opportunities on Broadway returned her to her native New York, away from the cameras; she appeared in only three films in the '60s. An ensemble player in the 1942 melodrama Johnny 2 x 4, Bacall came back a star in the sexy farce Goodbye, Charlie (1959), and enjoyed success in the long-running comedy Cactus Flower (1965). This offset a turbulent eight-year marriage to actor Jason Robards, Jr., which ended in divorce in 1969. (Their son, Sam Robards, is also an actor.) “The first time anything happens to you—your first love, your first success—the second one is never the same,” she told Time magazine in 2005.
The musical Applause (1970), freely adapted from the short story that inspired the Oscar-winning All About Eve (1950), gave her career a second wind, and won her a Tony Award. She received a second Tony for the 1981 musical comedy Woman of the Year, from the 1942 film. By then Bacall, a resident of the famed Dakota Apartments since 1961, was firmly ensconced in New York. But she returned Hollywood’s call for 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express, her first film role since another all-star mystery, Harper (1966), and Wayne’s swan song, The Shootist (1976). Her best-selling autobiography, Lauren Bacall By Myself, was published in 1978, and updated in 2005.
Other than starring in the upscale slasher film The Fan (1981), which traded in on her Broadway acclaim, Bacall largely appeared in supporting roles, and after more than fifty years in the movies received her first Academy Award nomination in that category, playing Barbra Streisand’s difficult mother in Streisand’s comedy-drama The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). Bacall was part of the ensemble casts of Lars von Trier’s controversial Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005) and played herself, profanely, in an episode of The Sopranos (2006). She received an honorary Oscar in 2009.
Later in life, Bacall found a niche, not unexpectedly, in voiceover work. She lent her husky phrasings to Madeline and Scooby-Doo cartoons, an episode of Family Guy, and the Oscar-nominated animated features Howl’s Moving Castle (2005) and Ernest & Celestine (2013). The director of the former, Hayao Miyazaki, said he preferred the English dubbing to the original Japanese soundtrack, mostly because of Bacall’s performance as the spiteful Witch of the Waste. “You can’t find Japanese women who sound like that,” he commented. Only one woman did.